Thursday, November 17, 2016

Death of William the Conqueror

The Death of William The Conqueror Engraving By J Gilbert
published in The Illustrated London News
William the Conqueror was not likely to be a person who mellowed-out in his final days.  His temper was still quick to anger and he did not hesitate to lay waste to his enemies’ lands at the slightest provocation.  He had become excessively fat, and it was said that his antagonist King Philip of France made an insulting comment about William’s bulk that enraged the Norman, who swore to take revenge.  And he did.

In England, the year 1087 was full of famine, pestilence and fire.  On the continent, William added his own devastation to the Vexin (the border between France and Normandy) and took especial aim at the town of Mantes, which he destroyed totally. On August 15, as he was encouraging his men to throw more wood on the flames, his horse stumbled, throwing William hard against his saddle pommel.

The injury turned out to be mortal.  Reeling from shock, William was removed to nearby Rouen where he was housed in the priory of Saint Gervase.  There he lingered for several weeks in sickness and pain surrounded by the Bishops and Abbots of the land, and according to Orderic he repented of his evil ways and even admitted that he had wrongly invaded England.  He is said to have especially regretted the Great Harrying of the North.

On a Thursday morning in September, William breathed his last.  Already, his heir William Rufus and younger brother Henry were already gone, on their way to claim their own—William the crown and Henry his 5000 pounds.  As William expired, the remaining prelates and nobles scattered to the four winds, intent on protecting their homes and possessions.  All feared the anarchy that would inevitably settle on the land until law could be reestablished. Once the coast was clear, even William’s servants set about stripping the body and the room of all its trappings, so that the corpse was left practically naked and all alone on the floor of his chamber for a whole day.

Finally, a single rustic knight by the name of Herlwin volunteered to take charge of collecting, washing and preparing the body for its funeral—at his own cost.  As they brought William’s corpse through Rouen and thence to Caen, the funeral cortege was swelled by local prelates and laymen, who brought the body to the Abbey of St. Stephen.  But even then William was not allowed to proceed in peace; just as happened on his coronation day, a fire broke out in a nearby house and many of the attendees ran off to fight the blaze as it spread through the town.

And that was not the end of William’s indignities. When the bier was brought into the church, a local knight rose up and asserted that William had stolen the land from his family to build this church, and he forbid that “the body of the robber be covered with my mould, or that he be buried within the bounds of my interitance” (Orderic).  His statement raised a great tumult, until finally William’s youngest son Henry and the prelates in attendance agreed to pay the knight 60 shillings for the seven feet of ground to lay the coffin, and furthermore to pledge the purchase-price of the whole estate, which they later paid.

Once the disturbance was over, they proceeded to move the body to the stone coffin, only to discover that the coffin was too small!  There was no recourse except to stuff the awesome bulk into the stone box.  But the process proved too much for the flesh and the body burst apart, filling the cathedral with such a stench that they rushed through the rest of the ceremony.  And so the great king was left to spend his eternity alone and abandoned, but certainly never forgotten.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

In the Days After Hastings

It was said that after the great Battle, William the Conqueror retired to Hastings and awaited the submission of the English people. None was forthcoming. Was he surprised, I wonder? After all, England had been subjected to Danish invasions the last couple of centuries, winning and losing battle after battle. Of course, they had not lost their king during one of those battles, but electing another king was only a matter of time. Apparently—at least initially—no one had any intention of recognizing the usurper. Of course, this was destined to change.

But not yet. With a few days after Harold’s death (I can’t find an exact date), a hastily-assembled Witan elected Eadgar Aetheling as king; he was the last surviving heir of the Royal house of Cedric of Wessex though still in his early teens. Eadgar was not crowned, presumably because this event always coincided with a high religious holiday and the next appropriate date would not occur until Christmas. Historian Edward A. Freeman suggested that Edwin and Morcar put themselves forward as likely candidates but received no support. They duly consented to Eadgar’s election, then went back home with their levies, “and left Eadgar and England to their fate”. Freeman’s judgment was harsh: “The patriotic zeal of the men of London was thwarted by the base secession of the Northern traitors. By their act all was lost.” Divided, England could not stand up to the might of the Norman invader.

William waited at Hastings for five days then resolved to secure the southeast portion of England before advancing on London. He marched along the coast, plundering his way to strike terror in his conquered people. He took especial revenge on Romney who had the audacity to attack some of his men before the great Battle. William then advanced to Dover which surrendered without a blow. Had the garrison already been killed at Hastings? It is said that William intended to spare the city because of its submission but that some of his unruly soldiers plundered anyway, setting fire to many houses. William brought his men under control and even compensated the homeowners for their losses. He spent eight days at Dover and left his wounded there to recover.

The Conqueror’s violence to the resistors and leniency to towns surrendering along the way served its purpose in Kent; even the city of Canterbury met the Duke on the road with hostages and tribute. This was on October 29. Interestingly, two days later, he pitched camp nearby in a neighborhood called the Broken Tower and stayed there for a month, for he was stricken down with a serious illness. This didn’t stop him from sending messengers to Winchester where Queen Editha had taken refuge, offering to leave them alone as long as they submitted to his rule (along with tribute, of course). Editha consulted with the city fathers and together they agreed to William’s terms. For all intents and purposes, the south was in William’s hands.

He now turned his attention to London; the last vestiges of resistance were strong there. Initially he sent forward a small contingent of 500 knights, who were met south of the Thames by a stout company of Londoners. A skirmish took place that sent the citizens retreating back inside the walls of the city; at this, the soldiers set fire to Southwark. But William was not minded to attack London yet; rather, he struck west along the southern bank of the Thames, harrying Surrey, Hampshire, and Berkshire until he reached Wallingford, which offered a bridge and a ford across the river. Unchallenged, William crossed and continued north, intent on creating a circle of desolation around London. Although this was not a formal siege, it was beginning to have the trappings of one.

By the time William reached Berkhampstead, apparently the English were demoralized. An embassy led by none other than Eadgar Aetheling himself, accompanied by Archbishops Ealdred and probably Stigand (as well as many of the chiefest men from London and southern England) came and did homage to William. Prepared to be merciful, the Conqueror received them graciously and gave Eadgar the kiss of peace. As Freeman reminds us: “It was the chance shot of an arrow which had overcome the English King, but it was William’s own policy which had overcome the English people.” And so it began.